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McLean County Explores Solar Energy For 2 Downtown Buildings

McLean County Law and Justice Center, health department building
Eric Stock
McLean County government plans to install solar panels on the roof of the Law and Justice Center and the health department building in downtown Bloomington if it can secure funding through a clean energy program.

McLean County government is exploring solar energy as a way to save on its energy bill, but will likely seek financial help before the program sees the light of day.

Normal Township recently had around 800 solar panels installed on the roof of the Activity and Recreation Center (ARC). That got McLean County Board member Laurie Wollrab thinking maybe the county should look into solar energy.

“It has the potential to save the county quite a bit of money from my understanding and possibly the most important thing overall is the environmental piece of it,” Wollrab said.

Wollrab is vice chair of the county board's property committee. The county reached out to Ky Ajayi, a project developer with Straight Up Solar, a company that builds solar installations. Ajayi has been helping local governments and non-profits install solar panels through a program called Illinois Solar For All. It provides better access to clean energy in low-income communities. Those who get the solar arrays don't pay for them and the solar energy reduces energy costs.

Solar panels installed on building roof
Normal Township
Normal Township had 784 solar panels installed on the roof of the Activity and Recreation Center. The solar energy is projected to save the township $521,000 over 15 years through Illinois Solar For All.

Yet, Ajayi said the solar program can still be a hard sell.

“The problem I have is convincing people that in this case, there is such a thing as a free lunch,” Ajayi said.

Funding comes from energy users. The renewable energy fee on your monthly power bill goes into a fund the Illinois Power Agency uses to pay for Solar for All. Approved vendors such as Straight Up Solar get funding to install the solar panels, while the company that finances the project can get a 26% tax credit and a renewable energy credit. That is an up-front payment that covers 15 years of energy production. The owners must pledge 65% savings on the energy the solar arrays produce. For example, Ajayi explains the solar panels at the Activity and Recreation Center are expected to save Normal Township more than $500,000 over 15 years.

“The finance partner benefits because they make money. Straight Up Solar benefits because we get to build the array. The community benefits because ARC can provide more services to the community instead of spending money on electricity and we get to hire and put to work folks from the training pipeline program,” Ajayi explained.

Solar builders have to employ trainees who have been incarcerated or were in foster care to be eligible. McLean County is looking at solar panels for two buildings in downtown Bloomington -- the Law and Justice Center and the building at 200 W. Front St., where the county health department is located.

Funding for the solar panels is competitive, based on a scoring system. Points are awarded for various factors, including if an area is low income. The two county buildings meet that threshold, but they fail to meet another key standard. They are not included in what’s called an environmental justice area. Those are areas that face greater health risks based on things like pollution and socioeconomic factors.

Ajayi plans to argue to Illinois Solar For All that part of downtown should be included. He has succeeded in getting parts of west Bloomington included in the environmental justice designation.

“Those environmentally polluted areas tend to be in Black and brown and poor areas,” Ajayi said. “So they look at the demographics as well.”

Illinois Solar For All plans to award about $5.5 million this summer for solar projects from non-profits and government buildings across the state. Ajayi expects the program will get requests totaling twice that. Still, he's optimistic McLean County has a good chance to get funding.

“I think they have a better than 50-50 chance to get the funding, primarily because they are public facilities,” Ajayi said. “What we have seen typically in previous submissions, they have primarily been for nonprofits.”

Ajayi said the Solar for All program has tried to balance funding between public facilities and non-profits. Ajayi estimates the county would save $730,000 in energy costs over 25 years. But without the incentives through Illinois Solar For All, the county would have to pay the up-front costs on its own.

County Board member Josh Barnett chairs the Property Committee. Barnett said he's not sure the county is ready to invest in solar on its own.

“I think it’s still too early to make that determination,” Barnett said. “At this point, we are still just trying to see where we are and see what credits may be available or grants to help make this a possibility.”

Barnett is a Republican. He said he is pro-green energy and hopes this doesn't become a partisan issue.

“There’s been some resistance politically from Republicans on renewable energy, but in my opinion anything we can have that’s homegrown energy like wind and solar and lessens our dependence on foreign nations for our energy is a win for the United States,” Barnett said.

Wollrab, a Democrat, said she would like to see the county go solar beyond the Law and Justice Center and the health department, adding those projects would need to demonstrate cost savings.

“Regardless of people’s political views on this, I would think (board members) would get behind it because it’s a lot of what people look at on the board is the bottom-line dollar,” Wollrab said.

County administrator Camille Rodriguez said the county could explore solar panels for other county properties in the future, such as the McLean County Nursing Home and the highway department building, but for now the county is still in the research phase.

“We would want eventually to consider, if it’s proper and the roof structure is right and if the analysis shows it would be of benefit, I think I could see us strategically adding this to some of our other buildings, too,” Rodriguez said.

Applications for the Illinois Solar For All program are due June 7. Another solar energy program called Illinois Shines that provides funding for solar projects throughout the state has run out of funding. State lawmakers are expected to consider several proposals to replenish that funding.

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